Critical Fieldwork 41

Provoke and Con-pora: In the blank space of ‘1968 – Japanese Photography’ (Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography) III

Every aspect of society has been turned into image, into media. The utopian “exterior” of the world is gone, and the world has turned into a constantly transforming network of image information, continually input and output. Photographs are now an environment into which people are born and where they spend their lives sucking them in and spitting them out. These are the basic assumptions of Con-pora photography. Consequently, Con-pora photography signifies first of all photographs of the environment known as photographs, and also photographs that verify the relationship between the photographs and people who exist within that environment (taking a photo, having a photo taken, looking at a photo).

First, let’s take a look at the catalogue from the exhibition “Contemporary Photographers,” where this all began. Photographs of the environment known as photographs and photographs of the relationships surrounding them are photographs taken of scenes that already appear to be photographs, photographs that manifest the gaze of a specific someone (not a gaze that belongs to no-one), expressed as a theatrical photograph. “Appear to be photographs” means (1) cropped via a frame (rectangular, cut off, black border); (2) light and shade are mutually opposed (the subject placed on the border between them); (3) faithful doubling of things as they are (mirror image, pairs, symmetry), (4) the fact that the photo was taken = the fact that the photographer exists (the subject looking at the camera, self-portrait holding a camera, a photograph of a person taking a photograph, group photo).

Rectangular. Lee Friedlander – New York City (1962). Courtesy Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography.

Left: Cut off. Lee Friedlander – Rome (1964). Right: Black border. Duane Michals – Bar (1966).

Left: Threshold between light and shadow. Garry Winogrand – Stanford, California (1964).
Right: Pairs/symmetry. Bruce Davidson – Central Park (1966).

Mirror image / self-portrait / subject looking at the camera. Danny Lyon – Self-Portrait (1966).

Left: Subject looking at the camera. Bruce Davidson – Hackensack, N.J. (1966).
Right: Group photo. Duane Michals – Edward Albee & Company (1962).

In particular, Bruce Davidson’s “subject-looking-at the-camera” photographs are thought to be a humorous take on photographs in which the subjects have been cleverly scattered within the frame, for example, the composition that frequently appears in Cartier-Bresson’s photographs. The relationship between photographer and subject of modern photography in which the “hunter hiding in the shadows” (the photographer) steals away that decisive moment in which the subject is caught in “the trap the photographer has set” (the photographer’s clever composition) is something of the past. When the people who appear in Cartier-Bresson’s photos look at the camera in unison, that is when Davidson’s photographs come to exist.

Henri Cartier-Bresson – Country Club, Aguascalientes Mexico (1963).

So, the individual characteristics extracted above are also easily discovered in the Con-pora photographs exhibited in “1968 – Japanese Photography,” but the way in which they have been manifested varies according to the photographer. The difference is between photographers who have merely imitated the ultramodern styles imported directly from the United States, and those who are aware of the conceptual meaning of those styles and have deliberately adopted the characteristics described above into their own photographs.

Rectangular. Koichi Inakoshi – from “Maybe, maybe” (1971/2008).

Cut off. Masao Sekiguchi – from “Hibi – Day to Day” (1967-70).

Black border. Masao Sekiguchi – from “Hibi – Day to Day” (1967-70).

Threshold between light and shadow. Shigeo Gocho – from “Hibi – Day to Day” (1967-70).

Group photo / subject looking at the camera. Takao Niikura – Former Karuizawa from “Safety Zone” (1964/2013).

Photograph of a person taking a photograph. Akihide Tamura – Atsugi from “BASE” (1968/2012).
Above six images all: courtesy Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography

As for the “black border,” Nakahira had already pointed it out in the interview in which the “day to day” of an earthworm appeared. The style of “burning the edges of the photographic paper black,” in other words, the narrow black border that surrounds the shot, comes directly from Duane Michals. “The stability provided by that effect reflects nothing but a weak line of sight.” That is because the black border looks like a protective border that allows the work to establish itself automatically as a “photograph.” Because, according to Provoke, the essential nature of photography is to criticize the “photograph” according to the “tenaciousness of the line of sight,” “destabilize” the image of the world that is supported by the “photograph,” and, by breaking through that image, encounter directly the real existence beyond, Nakahira’s criticism is understandable but not valid. It is because Michals, Sekiguchi and Gocho use the black border as a symbol of “this is a photograph (not reality presenting itself before your eyes).”

For Con-pora, the border is a device that yet again accentuates the theatricality of the photograph and blocks absorption. It holds in place the photograph in the form of a photograph and maintains the asymmetrical distance between the viewer and the person being viewed. Speaking in terms of Shigeo Gocho’s photographs, the relationship between the theatricality and the frame remains ambiguous in “Hibi – Day to Day” but is revealed in “Self and Others.” Gocho theatrically surrounds his photographs of theatrical objects (subjects who clearly stare intently at the camera) with a black frame. The result is that the fragmentation and dissimilation of the photo is directed towards the act of taking a photo and of a photo being taken itself and of the person viewing the photo “immersing” him or herself into the situation that is the “photo.” By doubling the theatricality, the absorption is appropriated by the environment of the photograph itself and not by some reality beyond the photo.

Once more, let me attempt to sort through the differences between Provoke and Con-pora. For Provoke, photography is nothing more than an act of everyday life in which photographic critique is amassed with respect to real things that appear at extremities. Provoke believes that everyday life has fallen asleep within the axiomatic nature of the status quo and that the “critic” (the photographer) continuing to criticize the axiomatic nature of the status quo (ex-status) is the day-to-day mission of photography. In contrast, for Con-pora, which is not premised on “as it is” preceding the photo or an ecstasy towards a place of pure existence, everyday life is not the status quo, nor axiomatic. In other words, it is not an object of criticism; it is nothing more than another name for the pulsating network that swallows the self and others. Photographs are a medium of verification of the relationship between the self and others. It is not photography that rejects photography. It is photography that criticizes and includes of course criticism of one’s own eyes that is looking at the photograph. For the people of Provoke, the photographs are underwhelming photographs, without ecstasy and where only apathetic lives are being lived. (To be continued)

1968 – Japanese Photography” was held form May 11 through June 15, 2013 at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography.

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